We’re Almost There — Enews for December 20th

We’re almost there!
The Christmas holidays will soon be here.
Check out the Sunday, December 24 schedule for Sunday worship (No 10:30 AM worship) and the information regarding the Christmas Eve worship services.  12-20-17

Merry Christmas from Chandler United Methodist Church.

 

2017-12-10 Searching for a Biblical Christmas – Wisdom 6/8

Searching for a Biblical Christmas – Wisdom 6/8
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, December 10th, 2017
Matthew 2, 1;12

We have been looking at the Old Testament as it leads to Christmas, which is two thirds of the Old Testament. It’s two thirds of the book are about what’s coming. Our cultural religion has told us and convinced us and sold us on the idea that one night out of the blue, Mary had a baby and we should be grateful. That’s the not the biblical message, in fact our cultural religion has reduced the meaning of Christmas to be all about us and making ourselves happy and one another happy. And all God really wants is for us to be happy, so he sends Jesus to die on the cross, so Merry Christmas, okay, we’re done. There’s a whole lot more to it than that as we have discovered, Christmas in the church is a little bit like paint that has been thinned by adding too much water, it doesn’t really hold up. And trying to make it work is a waste of our time. What we’ve discovered is that for hundreds of years there was an occupation force in Israel and power was power under and trying to get power over. And there was the Assyrians and there was the Babylonians and there were bad kings and there were bad decisions and bad leadership and self-focus and greed and longing for power. And the Babylonians overtook the Assyrians and then the Persians drove out the Babylonians and then, following the Babylonians came the Romans. And it’s during this period when Jesus comes and Jesus comes with a purpose, he comes with a message. The message from the Old Testament, prophet after prophet after prophet, the message is that ways of unbelief and ways of unfaithfulness bring decline and destruction and doom, lead to the fall of a nation.

And so the implication there is that believe and faithfulness make all the difference and so you might be wondering, well, remind us again what belief and faithfulness mean? I’m glad you asked, I’ll be glad to tell you that, thank you. Mostly because our cultural religion has somehow linked redefined belief to mean your belief that true includes hokey and weird and dodgy and suspect claims of anything said in the name of religion. That’s not what belief means at all, that is not what belief means, getting you to believe weird stuff that I found in the Bible, that’s not what belief means. Belief means that what is important to what I believe in becomes important to me. So for me to say I believe in God is me saying I’m trying to make what is important to God important to me. Faithful simply means acting on what I believe, believing it enough to put it into action, even if that costs me something. It’s not difficult to understand, we know intimately unbelief, we know intimately unfaithfulness, and humanity has this kind of a repetitive habit of believing in ourselves and longing for what we want and how we want it.

And we stay at it with perseverance, it’s not that God’s way is difficult to understand, it’s that our way is what we really want. And so we really don’t believe. And it’s not that God’s way is difficult to understand, Isaiah lays it out for us in chapter one and then everything that follows chapter one refers back to God’s way and God’s longing for someone who will actually practice God’s way. If you want to look at God’s way, chapter one verses 16 and 17, 12 words. That was it was in the original Hebrew, 12 words: cease evil, learn good, seek justice, help oppressed, justice orphan, plead widow. It’s not hard to understand, it’s about compassion. It’s not hard to understand, it’s hard to do because it gets in the way of self-focus and it gets in the way of greed. So we label God’s way as impractical, as impossible, as irreconcilable to the way of the world. It’s a nice idea, preacher, but not really.

Isaiah then goes on to say: so that you may believe that God’s way is real and will work, there will come a servant of the Lord, this servant will live out God’s way. He will demonstrate for you God’s way, he will be a light for justice; he will be prince of peace. God’s servant is coming to show us God’s way, he’s a new king that brings a new kingdom, that’s what Emanuel means: God comes among us in this servant. This servant will bring also a word that is new for us, discipleship. Discipleship simply means imitating Jesus. Imitating Jesus makes faithful people who put what they believe into action, even when it costs us something. Shaping our behavior, that’s discipleship, so that what is important to Jesus becomes important to us and then acting on that. That’s the Old Testament message.

Second two thirds of the Old Testament is pointing toward Bethlehem and we’re finding ourselves beckoned to go to Bethlehem and as we go, we’re looking for that discipleship. Thought it might be helpful for us to learn from some people who made the trip to Bethlehem previously, they went the first time. And they represent the echo of Isaiah. The first, actually the second group that is called, they come first in scripture, but I’ll tell you why they’re second later, is the shepherds. Shepherds in Isaiah’s day, 600 years before Jesus was born, shepherds were honorable and valuable members of society. But the religious folks teamed up with the business folks and they started writing new rules and then they rewrote those rules, mostly to make themselves look important and to make them some extra money. That’s always the way, the reason, rules get rewritten, is to make somebody else look important. They set into rules what they were already doing, they normalized their own behavior, they increased the purity laws, and they stringently regiment the cleanliness requirements for access to God. So it made it very hard and then it made it impossible for the folks who live on the land, like shepherds, to meet the requirements for access to God. And so that made those shepherds outsiders and the perfection of the religious folk became more like an exclusive little club.

Plus on festival days it was the religious folks who made extra money selling sacrificial animals to the people of the land who were trying to get in good with God. It used to be, like I said, that shepherds were honorable and that’s because it was accepted that when sheep travel they just eat what they see. And so if I’m a shepherd and I’m walking sheep through our community, they’re going to eat your flowers and they’re going to chomp on your ivy. And they’re going to have a great time with that long grass that you’ve been working on out by your water pipe in front of your house, they’re just going to have a grand time with that. For a long time that’s just the way it was, nobody questioned it and then the religious folks and the business people got a hold of it and they started making the rules stringent and it became a misdemeanor and then it became criminal.

There was not punishment that came along with that, but it made it even more impossible for you to get in with God because you’re a sinner and there’s no way that you can atone for all of the damage, we would call it, that my sheep did to your grass, your flowers, your ivy. And so I would be out, that’s just how it was and that’s where shepherds were. Shepherds were off the bottom of every ladder in existence. Necessary, but not accepted, but here’s the kicker, they were invited to come celebrate the arrival of God’s servant with signs and wonders. And we might want to pause and reconsider who it is that we elevate and hold high in our lives because these are the ones God elevated and invited and holds high.

There’s something else, the shepherds have this thing they pondered, and that’s one of the things they had in common with the wise men, the wise men came… This is a little more mysterious, but not a lot, we filled in a lot of blanks by adding to scripture. We don’t really know a lot about the magi, they came from a foreign land, but we know they pondered mysteries because they said a star brought us here. They consulted with the stars, which brings to mind back in Genesis when God is talking to Adam and Eve, God says come and walk with me in the cool of the evening, stay with me until light has left the sky. What brilliance will you see in the deepest dark? Just an aside, where is your sense of awe? When was the last time you pondered? When was the last time you listened to the cosmos? Went outside at night, maybe even got in your car and drove out, away from the city so you could see stars and let yourself feel very small?

Well, back to the wise men. We’re pretty sure that the amount of energy and expense involved in making the journey would’ve been considerable and it probably would’ve taken them about two years to make this quest. And we can get focused on where they’re from or who they are, which is really neat, but also something of a distraction. And I think we might just want to learn from what they did when they arrived.

The first thing that the text tells us is that they bowed down and worshipped or paid homage to Jesus. Worship is a function of faith, putting into action what is important to God. It gives God the defining rites of our lives, our values, our money, I think the worst kind of fool is the person who says I believe there is a God, but lives their life as if God’s directives, God’s way is not to be taken seriously. The second thing that the wise men did, the text tells us, is that they opened their treasures. I don’t know if you’re noticing this, but the resources of heaven are released through God’s people. Miracles occur when we release our treasures to the hands of Jesus for the purpose of multiplying God’s ways in the world.

Although this part of the passage is a little bit problematic in our cultural church, I’ve heard pastors go on and on about how the gift of gold means God wants you to be rich. I have a problem with that, because I know what happens next in the text and I know what the gold is needed for. Do you know what happens right after the baby is born, after the wise men leave? Joseph has a dream and the dream tells him: you must flee for your life and the life of the child and the child’s mother because Herod is on the hunt and he will kill that child, run. And so Mary and Joseph, they hightail it for the border of Egypt. And so my mind begins wondering how much does it cost to hire a guide to show you the best way across the desert? How much does it cost to bribe a border guard? When you go to a foreign country and you’re trying to survive, you have no history with any of the people there, you have no family business, you have no land. How much does food cost on the streets and how about a place to stay? And what kind of work can you get as a foreigner? This is an immigrant; the birth’s story becomes an immigrant story about crossing the desert and trying to survive in a foreign land.

You want to know where that money went. I’ll tell you exactly where that money went. Those wise men made it possible for that family to survive as migrant refugees running from violence. Miracles occur when we release our treasure for the purpose of multiplying God’s way in the world. There is one more thing that the wise men do, they too have a dream. And the dream tells them, and they listen, don’t return to Herod. And so the text tells us they returned to their country by a different road, they allowed the course of their momentum, their direction, to be altered. And I think about this and I think about changing the momentum of my life usually takes time. Changing my attitudes and my practices, it’s a hard thing to do, takes a couple of years of effort. I see in the wise men, I see in the shepherds: belief and faith. Belief, I believe in God, God’s way becomes more important to me than anything else. Faith, I’m going to act on God’s way, His way becomes our way. And we travel by a different road.

2017-12-03 Searching for a Biblical Christmas – The Power of Time 5/8

Searching for a Biblical Christmas – The Power of Time 5/8
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, December 3rd, 2017
Isaiah 30:9-15, 42:1-3, 53:3-9

Finally puberty has come and my voice is going to go downward. If you can’t hear it maybe you can just feel it, its low enough that I could sing bass. Usually I’m a fair baritone that can hit three out of seven notes, so that’s good.

We are in a series of sermons looking at the Old Testament foundations for Christmas; mostly because our cultural religion has so focused us on the events of Bethlehem that we no longer have knowledge of the Old Testament foundation. So, I thought it was time to go back and take a look.

It seems that the whole problem started with David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel Chapter 11. A man of power, a woman’s adulation, there was some manipulation, there was an affair, there was adultery, there was an unexpected pregnancy and there was a willingness to use power to kill that woman’s husband to make her available to be the powerful man’s wife. We say that David was forgiven of his sexual impropriety; God didn’t hold it against him anymore but we can also certainly see quite clearly that that did not free him from the consequences of his actions. It created the conditions in his own household where one of his sons, decided it was a good idea and okay to rape his step sister Tamar. And then another brother killed that brother and certainly in the Old Testament unfolding, between the lines is that terribly painful question, can you love someone, even when they have done terrible things?

Last week we talked about David’s legacy, his son Solomon and then Solomon’s son Rehoboam; the abuse of power being passed father to son to son. Do whatever feels good in the moment, justify it later, I’m the king what are you going to do? I can get away with this, what are you going to do? Forming alliances for protection; favors that we can call in if we’re ever under threat; what it led to last week was the split of the nation in half. Israel, the northern kingdom, no reverence or veneration for anything larger than power, that we can control, alliances we can build with more powerful nations and those will protect us.

God begins God’s complaint with the northern nation of Israel through the prophet Hosea. You are like people who move boundary stones between fields. This would lead to the eventually in the invasion of the Assyrians from the north. Israel was conquered; the entire population was carried off into exile, enslaved by the Assyrians, never to be heard from again. They interpreted what happened to them as a failure in their allegiances to people of power. They saw this as they hadn’t worked hard enough at forming alliances with Assyrians or with Babylonians or with Egyptians. They saw no reason to return again to the God who rescued them from slavery in Egypt and they were swallowed up by history. No legacy at all.

The southern kingdom, Judah; we spent three weeks talking about the long slippery list of ways that power is abused by people of power; rationalizing by the king’s people of the king’s atrocious behavior. Do whatever it takes to get rich, don’t pay your workers, and change allegiances on a whim, practice sexual aggression because you can get away with it, including the willingness to destroy a woman’s life to make her available to you. Practice nepotism, cronyism, lying, and tantrums and be sure to fail to take care of the vulnerable in your midst because it’s just not profitable.

Judah is also invaded and conquered, this time it’s the Babylonians. And the people of Judah interpret what has happened to them as a failure to be faithful to God, to the ways of God. And the book of Daniel tells us that some of them began to practice those simple things again: prayer and worship and honesty and integrity and compassion for a neighbor who’s in a bad way. There was definitely a reformation of the community of faith in the midst of terrible things happening under the hands of Babylonians.

It is about three generations later, about 70 years later when the Persian king, Persia invades Babylon and conquers them, the Persian king, Cyrus, discovers this remnant people among his newly acquired kingdom. He decrees that the God of Judah, Yahweh has instructed him to build a house of worship in the midst of the ruins of what was once Jerusalem. And he sends this contingent of people, this remnant of people home. He loads them with wagons and horses and stock and supplies and gold and silver and he encourages the sending of offerings by the people of his empire.

1 and 2 Chronicles, 1 and 2 Kings, Daniel, Jeremiah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Zachariah, Ezekiel, Amos, Micah and Judges and Hosea all tell stories, events leading up to or following the exile. This is huge; this is the major theme of the Old Testament. But there is this other book that we should talk about. It’s the one Bill read from this morning, Isaiah. Isaiah is Jesus’ favorite prophet. Isaiah lived in the time when the Assyrians were the power to the north, to be feared and Egypt to the south. Babylon is gaining power and will soon replace and conquer the Assyrians as the dominant threat but the international scene, who was on the rise and who was on the decline and who could befriended and who could be counted on to rescue, was constantly in a state of change and the people of north country Israel were concerned about their future.

And the people of the southern nation, Judah, were scared about their future. How do we survive? How can we prosper? And God had tried to speak to them through prophets. God’s message was live my way, rely on me, you’re running around and trying to play the field of loyalty always backfires. Isaiah was born and grew up in the southern nation of Judah. He was of a family of some means because he was very well-educated. And he was watching all of this drama unfold and he seems to have access to the royal court and, in fact, maybe related to the royal family, somehow. He says that it’s not hard to read the sign of the times, the signs of what is to come. And when the Assyrians invade the northern kingdom from the north the king of the northern kingdom sends a plea for help from the southern kingdom.

We’d be stronger together and the king of the southern kingdom declines and says: you never should have broken away from us, whatever comes to you; it’s your own fault. And instead the king of the southern kingdom, Judah, tries to form a side alliance with the Assyrians. And he starts building a bridge with the Babylonians. Isaiah is sickened by the whole thing because what it takes to build a bridge with the Babylonians is money. Money to pay tribute and where does that money come from? The money comes from anywhere the politicians of the day could find it and they robbed money that had been designated for poor folks.

Isaiah was sickened by it. And the primary question that Isaiah begins to write about is how can we survive because all of that about building alliances and building bridges and money is about how are we going to survive as a nation. I know, there’s a lot of things addressed in the book of Isaiah, 60 chapters long, written over somewhere between 60 and 70 years. There’s judgment and idolatry and the decline of community and selfishness and greed and the perversion of justice and all of that leading to the fall of the nation and captivity and God’s sovereignty and God’s faithfulness and the coming of the Messiah. If you’d like a solid read on the book of Isaiah, Theodore Rath, some of you know him, Pastor Ted, he was a member here. He wrote a book Isaiah, a Ride in the Chariot, very well done.

Isaiah has a lot of issues that he hit but every one of them hinges back to that same question; how do we survive? Isaiah’s writing about that in our first passage this morning, Isaiah 30. God the holy one says, in repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and simple obedience to my way is your strength but you will have none of it. I tell you rest and relax, trust in me to provide what you need. Consult me in prayer before you act. But you say: no and you go rushing to accomplish life on your own terms. You survive by seeking power over and settling for power under. Israel, the northern kingdom tried to survive by openly practicing power under, they were a little nation and they knew they were a little nation. They needed help to survive so they took on the subordinate role and they’re always trying to slip their own survival into the goodness of someone larger. They’re like that friend of the bully on the playground who slides up to you down by the lockers and goes: Billy is going to kick your butt at recess.

You know that guy? The guy who’s always: yeah, hit him Billy, hit him Billy. He’s not the bully himself but he’s the under-power, he’s the underpinning, he’s the: I can’t get by without him guy, the guy who’s always smiling saying yes sir, yes sir but then functions less than honestly. The suck-up model; some of you might work with somebody like that. These are the folks who will always smile and claim to know nothing after moving the boundary stones in the field.

Judah the southern kingdom tried to survive by practicing power over. Get what you can, rely on strength even though Judah was a smaller nation than Israel; they played big. They acted like they were all that and a bag of chips. Even though you’re small you play, you roll with the big boys. You go with hard hitting superpower attitudes: anything to accumulate riches; anything to presume wealth and always presume that wealth entitles you to power. You become the smiling guy with the small knife that can slip between ribs, that no-one trusts and everyone hates; because you’re always plotting to get something.

There is a story here of King Hezekiah, he was the king of Judah. This was back when there still was a northern kingdom of Israel. Hezekiah was trying to show around a delegation of Babylon and he was really showing them how powerful Judah was and he showed them to demonstrate how powerful they were, he showed them all of the treasures of the kingdom; all of the gold and silver that they had accumulated. And Isaiah writes about this and he says equating wealth with strength and showing the entire treasury, you have successfully made Judah the target of Babylon.

And Isaiah says: the invasion of Judah and captivity will come from the Babylonians because you’ve given them something to fight for; not the Assyrians. Isaiah says: neither power over or power under ever works; they always seemed to produce the same result. Power under is always subordinate, it’s always criticizing, always undercutting. Perhaps you know someone who practices power under perpetually passive aggressive. Never angry but always hostile; disguising criticism in compliments that are side-hand. Getting in the last word; always seeking to find some sense of control. Power over is men like David and Solomon commanding, acquiring the goods, oppressing the women, exploiting the vulnerable, dominating, always in control.

Isaiah offers an alternative and Isaiah’s alternative is God’s way. He spells this out in the very first chapter and he keeps referring back to it; blasts the commitment to the ideas of religious beliefs and rituals but people still lack simple mercy and compassion. Blasts quickness to gain a judgment against a neighbor who owes you something, blasts the willingness to hear malicious gossip. Says you may fold your hands in prayer but they drip in blood of social injustice because of the community they create. Then in a stunning series of short lines, each having only two Hebrew words; he ticks off God’s way. Cease evil, learn good, seek justice, help oppressed, justice orphan, plead widow and it’s no wonder and Isaiah names this, it’s no wonder why people love to get wrapped up in arguments about religion and right belief and proper ritual. Otherwise they might have to deal with what’s really important to God, social justice.

That crux passage from our text today; this is the crux passage of the book of Isaiah, chapter 30. Isaiah is saying if you take care of those little things, the big things will take care of themselves because taking care of those little things, like cease evil, learn good, work justice, help the oppressed, be just to the orphan and plead for the widow, doing those little things creates momentum for the nation and identity and a drive of graciousness. And that solves a lot of other problems that come to a nation. Primarily it changes the challenge of me and mine getting ahead and the challenge becomes bringing everyone up.

Being principled and gracious will make the nation great in the eyes of its citizens and the eyes of the world and in the eyes of God; because honesty and integrity matter. That’s how God’s providence works; trusting God’s way to shape our future.

Isaiah says the exact opposite is also true. If you protect evil, perfect deceit, pervert justice, deny the oppressed, exploit the orphan, ignore the widow, spread gossip, that creates momentum too. And it’s momentum that feeds power and then you just become like every other nation and you’re just someone else to fight. And you’re always anxious about not getting power, you’re anxious about losing power; you’re always a target for someone because you have sealed your doom.

All of our hopes and fears through all the years, have you ever noticed they all go back to power? What we hear from Isaiah is that power as we define it means nothing to God. We’re out by the teeter totter trying to create a balance of power or an imbalance in our favor, because we’ve heard that the Lord brings down the mighty and lifts up the low but God’s not exchanging places. Teeter totter is not an appropriate biblical image.

The appropriate biblical image that Isaiah is talking about here is all of us, seated at a table, the powerful have come down, the lowly have been lifted up and it’s just us.

Isaiah says: so that you may believe God’s way is real and will work, there will come a servant of the Lord. He will live out God’s way, he will execute justice and he will be a prince of peace. But God already knows how humanity is going to receive him and Isaiah includes that too. And that was our final reading. He was despised and rejected, suffered, he’s familiar with pain, he was despised and we held him in low esteem. Surely, he took up our suffering and bore pain at our hands, yet we considered him punished by God. He was pierced by our transgressions, he was crushed by our iniquities and the punishment we imposed to bring us peace, was on him. And by his wounds we are healed.

We all have to choose how we’re going to receive Jesus every year and we all have to choose who we’re going to allow to interpret for us the meaning of Christmas. Our cultural religion with endless radio play and television commercials and mall bustle and Amazon hustle or a servant coming among us to show us God’s way, who will execute justice; king of kings bringing the kingdom of God, who will exhibit inner peace and counsel righteousness. Cease evil, learn good, seek justice, help the oppressed, be justice for the orphan and plead for the widow.

What Isaiah describes is an impractical, absolutely impossible way of living that cannot possibly be reconciled with the ways of the world. And yet it is so compelling to us that we come here year after year to ponder it.

What if we lived that way? And there is significant reason why Jesus is born to simple, poor, peasant people. There’s a reason the shepherds in the field are invited and the wise ones are beckoned from afar, foreigners insightful enough to watch the stars and read the signs and follow. Not only will Jesus come but Jesus comes to demonstrate for us God’s way, God’s uneasy, God’s narrow and difficult, God’s impossibly costly way. We’re getting closer to Christmas.

2017-11-26 Searching for a Biblical Christmas – Scandalous Love 4/8

Searching for a Biblical Christmas – Scandalous Love 4/8
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
November 19th, 2017
Hosea 3:1

We have been working our way through the Old Testament footings for Christmas. Mostly because our cultural religion has unhitched the images of Christmas that don’t conveniently fit on a Christmas card. And I’m going to tell you, I do not ever want to see the images of Hosea on a Christmas card. The text that was read for us comes from the Prophet Hosea; we’ll get there in a moment. There is a story though, that goes with this and it is a good chunk of the Old Testament. I’m going to try to tell it quickly and hit the high points, or maybe the low points, I’m not sure.

Back when David was the king — you remember David — he killed Goliath with the sling; and David, who played the lyre for Saul; the boy shepherd who became king. When David was king, there was just one nation, Israel. They were a small nation. They were a vulnerable nation to the larger empires. They had to navigate around and try to make do. David was a good king. He built Jerusalem. David was a bored king. He had an affair multiple times and killed another man so that he could have his wife.

Solomon, his son, took over as king. When Solomon became king, his request to God was: please make me wise. And God did make him wise. And when we talk about Solomon, we say: He was a wise king. And that’s a small piece of who Solomon was. Solomon was a sexual addict king. Solomon had multiple wives. Solomon liked to marry women from other nations. Being wise gets boring pretty fast. That’s why men have trouble with middle-age, you know. Life becomes kind of flat; no longer really a challenge to meet. And with boredom, comes an increase in appetite.

And Solomon heard other kings had grand residences. And he did a little bit travelling to negotiate some treaties and he saw those grand residences and he got some ideas about how he wanted to govern. And he liked power. And so, he returned and he centralized the governing of the nation and he started an aggressive building campaign. And he put up suitable buildings to house a centralized government. And he put up a suitable residence for an honored king. And he raised taxes through the roof, to pay for this new level of nationhood. And folks groaned under the weight of the yoke. They said the yoke is unbearable.

Well, people came unglued when Solomon was dating other women and having affairs and taking other women as his wives. The rumor was and the text tells us, that he had somewhere around 1000 wives. People didn’t like that, they called him the immoral king, who marries foreign women and that’s bad enough but then, he built shrines and he worships their gods. And he taxes us, so he can live in luxury.

But Solomon discovered what his father David had discovered and that is: Hey, I’m the king. I can have you imprisoned, or tortured, or executed; or all three. I’m the king. Now, what was it you wanted to talk to me about? You seem to have some concerns. His infidelity and his love of opulence sowed the seeds of division throughout the nation. His son, Rehoboam, followed in his father’s footsteps, meeting and marrying women, especially princesses and duke daughters and the children of other royalty from around that part of the world.

When it was time for him to be made king, messengers came from the ten tribes of the north. And they said to him: Your father’s yoke has been unbearably heavy; we hope you will lighten the load.

He travelled to the northern part of the kingdom, to the city up there called Shechem. And the advisors of the royalty — that’s where the critics were for him — the folks who yelled the loudest about the taxes that his father had imposed. He travelled up there to be consecrated as king. And they approached him in person and said: The taxes are too much. You have to lighten the load. It is an unbearable yoke. Your father put a heavy yoke on us. Make our burden lighter.

He said to them: Give me three days to ponder what I will do. He left behind the royal advisors. He went off with his friends on a three-day drinking binge. He came back and he mustered all of the swagger he could and he stepped up after being consecrated king and he made an inappropriate sexual joke. He said: My little finger is thicker than the loins of my father. Yes, it means what you think it means. And I wish I was kidding. I wish I was joking in some way. If you want to read about it, it’s 1 Kings Chapter 12 – the whole story. He’s basically saying: I am the big man here. He said: My father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will make it heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.

It started a revolt and a very short civil war and it broke the nation into two. Rehoboam, remained king of the southern kingdom, now called Judah. And the northern kingdom, now called Israel, they got a new king. But they made some changes.

Now, you spent three weeks talking… listening to me talk about the southern kingdom but… Jeroboam… I’m sorry, Rehoboam – it’s hard to keep all the Boams straight. Rehoboam continued as king of the southern kingdom. He was the first in the line of bad kings. And the last in the line of bad kings was Jehoiakim. You listened to me for three weeks, talk about Jehoiakim; and how the southern kingdom of Judah was eventually sacked by the Babylonians; and all the people, most of the people, were carried off into exile. We’ll come back to them later.

The northern kingdom now, Israel, made up of the ten tribes of the north, they were the ones who had made all that noise about the infidelity of their king. And what really bothered them were the taxes they had to pay to support a strong centralized government and lavish kings and a king living in opulence. And so, their first thing was to decentralize the government. They didn’t build government building. They expected the king to live in a simple residence like them. And they appointed a guy named Jeroboam to be the king. See, my concern was Rehoboam, now Jeroboam. You would think they would be related, they are not.

Now, Jeroboam has a problem: How am I going to govern? I have no authority. How can I be king, I’ve got nothing? And so, he started, kind of, a competition between the tribes and he would be the judge about who got to make decisions, that became kind of, an intermixing between religion, loyalty to the king and nationalism or patriotism. Kind of became a patriotic religion. It became the center point of the nation. Jeroboam, to support this, built two major worship centers. It’s not that big of a nation anymore and it was kind of vulnerable. But, he built two big sanctuaries, rivaling the opulence of the temple that was in Judah, back in Jerusalem.

One in the north, near the Dan River. And one in Bethel, near the southern river. He ordained a new priesthood, to be loyal to him in this new religion. It included annual festivals and pilgrimages and obedience to an unseen god. And in each of these worship centers, he commissioned and installed a golden calf to serve as a symbol of Almighty God. But, his festival days didn’t line up with Passover. And the calves that he installed, that were made out of gold — but they weren’t made out of gold — they were actually made out of iron and coated in gold. We know that now because one of them has been found. This is an historical event, not just stories.

Those calves looked too much like the idols forbidden by Moses. And the nationalism that worshiped the nation was a bit too much. And so, the old-school religious people, the moral people of the community, of the nation, accused him of making his own cult, starting his own national cult to worship him. You can read all about this, in 1 Kings 12, 13, 14, 16. 2 Kings 3 and a good chunk of Chronicles.

There are archaeological digs at both Dan and Bethel. They have found these worship centers. There is evidence of cultic sacrifice. There is cultic feasting that happened. And at Dan, the one in the north, they have found a four-horned alter, and alter with four horns, made of iron and remnants of gold coating – fascinating; absolutely fascinating. There’s evidence that these sanctuaries were used for several hundred years.

Under Jeroboam, though, something else happened. Their northern neighbor, the Assyrians, began to breathe on their neck and not in the good way. They sent a delegation south and said: We are your kingdom neighbors to the north. Either you will pay tribute to us or you will cease to exist. Well, Jeroboam had to do something. And so, he began to pay tribute. And, of course, he didn’t want to take it out of his own pocket and so he took it out of taxes. And now he had to raise taxes to keep doing what he wanted to do. And, of course, they didn’t like that.

The Assyrian delegation had also said to him: You will worship some of our gods. That didn’t really upset people. Nationalism reared its head. And there was, kind of, an exchange going on of: We want to try to get along with our neighbors to the north. And we want them to kind of like us. And so, the church, the national church that Jeroboam had founded, started to kind of lean in that direction. Folks didn’t really object to it all that much. God sent a prophet though. The story of Jonah came. Do you remember the story of Jonah? Do you remember the point of the story of Jonah? It is not: Don’t run from God. That is not the point of the story of Jonah.

Really, the point of the story of Jonah is: Your patriotism gets in the way of your worship. Do you remember where God sent Jonah to go preach, Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. The message Jonah brought to them is: Worship my one true God. And the story of Jonah is: They did. They repented. They put on sackcloth and ash and joined him in worshiping the one true God, Yahweh. Their sin had come before God. Do you remember what their sin was? Their sin was they worshiped multiple gods, particularly Dagon, a fish god, who was purportedly half fish, half man. Do you remember what swallowed Jonah? A giant fish.

The message of Jonah was also: Jonah’s God, is bigger than the God of Assyria. Jonah’s God is capable of taking care of men. The allegory of Jonah was about God’s love for our enemies. At the end of Jonah, Jonah is very upset that the people of Nineveh had repented because Jonah was looking forward to them being destroyed. He was actually going to enjoy that. And that didn’t happen, they repented. And, God had to say to Jonah: I love the Ninevites too.

But, it also recalled that first commandment; do you remember the first of the Ten Commandments? Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Because the real issue back home, it wasn’t really about converting the Assyrians, it was about reminding the people of the northern kingdom, Israel, to worship one God. And the real issue at home was folks had become indifferent to God and God’s ways. They worshiped other gods, like the gods of power relationships and gods of advancement and gods of let me get ahead, please.

God articulated God’s challenge this way, at first: You are like a neighbor how moves boundary stones that are what God said to the people of Israel, you’re like a bad neighbor. And if you want to define: Well, what are God’s ways? God’s ways are being a good neighbor. But the people of Israel had a hard time with that; they really wanted to focus in on the sins of their king. And they, kind of, obsessed on their king and the sins of the king and… you’re marrying four women and you’re bringing them here and you’re putting up shrines to their gods and you’re worshiping them. And that’s the real problem before God. And God came back and said: That’s not really the problem. Into this confused, fighting, wandering nation, God sends another prophet. Hosea used the infidelity of the kings, like David and Solomon and Rehoboam and Jeroboam, to turn the conversation around. Hosea represents God’s relentless pursuing love.

Hosea’s wife, Gomer, represents the prostituted life of the people of Israel. The people did not like this and they tried to kill Hosea and he had to run. But the metaphor worked. And there are two reasons it worked. It worked because it was shocking, especially to people who thought they were moral. They’re practicing their religion. They’re keeping the festivals, they’re obeying all the rules, and they’re punishing all the people that should be punished. And, therefore, this is pleasing to God. And to be compared to an unfaithful prostitute was absolutely stunning to them. And I’m sure they were outraged because they tried to kill the messenger. The second reason that the metaphor worked was because it makes an important comparison for us to hear too. The rationalization of the unfaithful prostitute is the rationalization of the moral person. I’m just trying to survive. I’m just trying to get by. I’m just trying to make ends meet. I’m just doing what it takes to pay the bills.

And let’s be really clear here: In Hosea, God is not passing judgment on women or men who find it necessary to use their bodies to pay the bills. God is saying: You people of Israel are so offended by someone rationalizing unfaithfulness, like a prostitute. But you will not see your own rationalized unfaithfulness to me.

The message of God through Hosea is: You people claim to be so offended by the sexual proclivities of your kings. You make accusations and you charge that they are unfaithful. But look where your love lies. Your love of nation and power has become idolatry. The speed with which you run to offer your love to anyone, or anything, that makes you feel important is sickening. And the ease with which you openly follow and justify anyone who speaks with bravado. God says: Having a relationship with you is like being married to someone who is unfaithful; who launders; who sleeps around; who sells themselves to anyone. And rationalizes that it’s okay because you say, well, I really love you, God. You’re like a prostitute and I’m getting screwed.

God’s judgment came out of this. God’s judgment on the northern kingdom of Israel was to let the natural consequences of their unfaithfulness come up on them. They were unfaithful to God which made their faithfulness to the Assyrians convenient. They were trying to cozy up to the Assyrians for protection. Yes, we’ll worship some Assyrian gods. We’ll talk up their military power and strength. We’ll schmooze, we’ll do some business, we’ll make some money, and it’ll all be a good thing. And the Assyrians see how valuable Israel is nd they come to like the Israelites. And so, Assyria invades Israel. There’s a siege on Shechem. There’s some attempts to appease the Assyrian king – they fail. The texts that have been found record 27,290 people being carried off into slavery and distributed around Assyria. You can read the stories in 2 Kings 15, 17, 18; 1 Chronicles 5; 2 Chronicles 30 and 31.

The entire population of the northern kingdom disappeared. They absorbed into the Assyrian population. Just as the southern kingdom, Judah, was destroyed and carried off into the Babylonian empire for being dishonorable. The northern kingdom, Israel, was destroyed for unbelief and unfaithfulness. Belief in God means, what is important to God becomes important to me. Belief is trusting in God’s authority, God’s providence, God’s voice, more than any other voice in my head.

And God tried to say to them: Simply be a good neighbor to one another. Stop moving the boundary markers. Have a center of morality. Unbelief and unfaithfulness has become evident when that desire to feel secure leads to us to always be negotiating with whatever power there is in our life. What do I have to do to please you, so that you’ll like me and I can feel secure?

Unbelief and unfaithfulness become visible when our security comes not from God and our trust in God’s providence because we have no centering principles then, to hold fast and we readily negotiate with whatever god seems to be in power. And we become too familiar and we lose ourselves and we are assimilated into the world around us. And our rationalization is a familiar one: I’m just trying to survive. I’m just trying to get ahead. I’m just doing what I’ve got to do. And God says: Don’t kid yourself. You’re for sale. And you’ve been pimped.

God’s promise is — through Hosea — is that God will buy back God’s people at a high cost, which God will pay. God will be the faithful husband that buys back from a pimp an unfaithful spouse. Not right away, takes a few generations. The population of the northern kingdom, Israel is carried off. The cities are rebuilt and repopulated by the expanding Assyrian empire. About 60 years, the Assyrians were conquered by the Babylonians. And then about ten years after that, the Babylonians are conquered by the Persians. The Persian king, Cyrus, is made aware that there are a remnant people in the midst of this new kingdom, people from Judah. The people rescued from the Egyptians; the people who had survived the great flood.

Cyrus says that his heart is moved by this God. He doesn’t stop worshiping his other gods but he says his heart was moved by this God. And he makes a royal decree; it’s called the Cyrus Cylinder. And the Cyrus Cylinder was found on in the nation of Babylon in 1879, by Hormuzd Rassam, an explorer. And it now resides in the British Museum of History. On this decree, he says that God has charged him to build a house for the people of God in Jerusalem. And he sets free all of those people of that God. Historian Josephus records that Cyrus was changed by this God. That he became quite benevolent. He grew a nation that was great in generosity.

The descendants of people from Judah had held together. They were the exiles. They were a remnant. And so, Cyrus sought out and he put out a decree across the entire empire, seeking these remnant people, descendants of Abraham and Sarah; people freed from the Egyptians; people whose ancestors had survived the great flood. He said: I’m going to send you to your ancestral home. He takes up an offering, a very large offering and out the treasury o of the nation, he sends silver and gold and goods and wagons and beasts. He appoints a new king. And the books of Ezra and Nehemiah talk about the return and the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

When the decree goes out, the invitation to be free from servitude, to return to build a house for The Lord in Jerusalem, people from the southern kingdom, Judah, the remnant, they came out of the woodwork. No one from the northern kingdom returned. Hosea was right when he said that unfaithful Israelites would be swallowed up by history, as if they had never even existed. Kingdoms come. Kingdoms go.

Hebrew scripture sees God as active in human history. And the message of the northern kingdom is that saying we love God is not enough. Saying I believe in God is not enough. Simply claiming to be a people of faith misses the mark. Jesus will recall the lessons of the northern kingdom. Jesus will quote Hosea 5. The Pharisees are bringing their sacrifices to the temple but they have no mercy for the sick, or the outcast, or the indebted, especially the indebted. The Pharisees are all too quick to say: You owe me money. Pay, or I’ll have you imprisoned. They show no mercy, though they receive mercy from God; all too quick to seek a legal judgment. Jesus has some things to say about that.

Jesus will come back and quote for us the burden and the yoke image. He will say: Come to me all of you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke up on you and learn from me, for I am gentle. I’m humble in heart. And you will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Now, where do you suppose he got that image?

I think each of us has to ponder two questions about our life. What kind of people are we going to be and what remnant will we leave? I think of the southern kingdom, Judah and its descent, sliding down into dishonor. How simple it is, how easy it is, to slide into money and its rewards of power, having the identity of being rich and calling it blessing. Especially if you got rich by failing to pay workers who did jobs for you; especially if you continue your wealth by failing to pay appropriate taxes to care for veterans and vulnerable members of society. How tempting it is to hire friends who are always praising you and call it good. And when things don’t go well, how tempting it is to lie and pitch a tantrum. Dishonor displeases God.

In the northern kingdom, Israel, it’s dissolving into unfaithfulness and how easy it is to have no conviction and no self-discipline. How tempting it is to unhitch ourselves from any centering pole for our morality. And
always make peace by going along, to get along and smiling and nodding; always making the sale; always cozying up to power in the name of survival, in the name of advancement, in the name of accumulation. Just listen to whatever voice tells you you’re important. Worship whatever god promises you what you want. Unfaithfulness displeases The Lord.

I feel stuck in the middle between all those things that we shouldn’t do. It’s quite the burden. It’s exhausting. I wish God would send us someone who can show us the way. And now, we have to wait.

Good E-news for Today

Good news is found inside the weekly e-newsletter.
Find out about the Children’s Sunday school Christmas Program, the Chancel Choir’s Lessons & Carols, how to give tribute cards that benefit the UMOM shelters, the December Missions Outreach, and so much more in this week’s edition:  12-06-17